Why kids lie — and what to do about it

When I was growing up, my grandmother kept her change in a felt-lined antique box in her bathroom. Every time I washed my hands, the box beckoned to me like a treasure chest. I’d open the top and dig my hand into the cold silver, letting quarters fall from my fingers like water. For a kid, that was a hit of dopamine on par with a big win at the Craps table.

The strange thing was that, to my undiscerning, 8-year-old eye, the number of coins always appeared to remain — and my apologies for the cheesy pun — unchanged. Month after month I’d check it, only to find that the box was just as full as the last time. If my grandmother was adding to it, or taking from it, it sure didn’t seem like it. Has she forgotten about it? I asked myself. Does she still look in here? Would she even notice if it was gone?

Easy money

I don’t specifically remember hatching my plan, but there was obvious genius behind it. I would sneak into the bathroom when all the adults were having cocktails in the library (Yes, my grandmother had a library. And yes, I do realize this is sounding a lot like a game of Clue.) I’d find a blanket — appropriately large — into which I’d dump the contents of the antique box. My grandmother would never know coins were missing, and I’d be rich.

In retrospect, the fatal misstep may have been in choosing where to stow the loot until it was time to go. I decided to drag the blanket, sack-like, into the front hallway, and leave it by my shoes. I don’t even think I was nervous, so foolproof was this plan.

It was about five minutes later when I heard my grandmother’s sweet voice: “Wendy? Can you come here a minute?”

Standing in the hallway next to her was my mother. At their feet was the blanket, which suddenly seemed absurdly huge, unfolded to reveal the money.

The lie that told a truth

My face burned with embarrassment. I looked up at them and, as I stumbled around in my idiot brain for something to say, I noticed how kind their faces looked. They weren’t mad, either of them — it was more like a combination of curiosity, concern and amusement.

“I found it in the box in your bathroom,” I told my grandmother. “I wasn’t sure if you knew it was there.”

I wasn’t sure if you knew it was there.

There it was. The lie.

The lie that told a truth: The truth being that I was a liar. And a bad one at that.

The consequences

If there is a god, may she bless those two women because they did not call me a liar. Or a thief. They did not scold me or make me feel bad for what I’d done, or ask me any more questions. They didn’t even make me apologize.

Maybe they could read the deep shame in my eyes already; maybe their martinis had made them too happy to care; or maybe, just maybe, between the two of them, they knew a little something about kids.

Whatever the reason, my grandmother’s response was to smile.

“Yes, I knew it was there,” she said.

And then my mom suggested we go put the money back, which I did hastily and with enthusiasm.

It was never spoken of again.

Forty years later

A few days ago, our little neighbors Dylan and Rennie, both 6, were playing on the sidewalk in front of our house, and they tossed a few of our river rocks into the street. When my husband got home, Dylan’s mom, Leslie, two doors down, called out: “I’m sorry the kids threw some of your rocks in the street.”

Charlie laughed and said something along the lines of, “As far as I’m concerned, they can throw all of them in the street.” He likes kids.

He did go out and put rocks back, though. And when he did, little Dylan materialized several feet away.

With her finger up to her mouth (which was masked, of course, due to the pandemic), very earnestly, she said, “I think that the wind maybe blew some of your rocks into the street.”

It was the most charming of lies, and I made sure to text Leslie later.

“Oh no,” she wrote back, “I’m not sure whether I’m more disappointed in her lying or thinking the wind could blow those rocks around. Have you written a blog post on 6-year-olds lying? The ‘We value honesty in this family doesn’t seem to be working lol.”

I was suddenly transported back in time, 40 years back, to the location of my first crime — She did it with a blanket in the hall. And it got me thinking about lying: why kids do it, what it means, and how adults can discourage it without blame or shame.

No, I told Leslie, I haven't written a blog about lying. But I'm going to change that right now.

A lie by any other name

If Gertrude Stein had said "a lie is a lie is a lie is a lie,” she'd have been lying. Not all lies are created equally and therefore require different responses. Some lies are 100% not a problem (I’ll call these Level 1); some are precursors to problems that require some careful treading (Level 2); and some are flat-out problems that require your involvement (Level 3).

Here, I’ll lay out the different types of lies kids tell, and my advice for how to handle each of them. (Oh! And I've included links to a number of children's books to check out, all vetted by my mom — a retired college professor, children's librarian and all-around great human.)

The Age-Appropriate Untruth (Level 1)

Ruthie and the (Not So) Teeny Tiny Lie

Between ages 2 and 4, kids say things that are not true, but they’re not attempting to deceive us. Maybe they're having fun, engaging in fantasy, making a joke or needing attention; or maybe they're just trying to work out where truth begins and ends. Whatever the case, it's a developmental thing.

  • Child says “Look at me! I can fly!”

  • Child takes a cookie then says, “Wasn't me!”

  • Child claims to be thirsty at bedtime

What to do:

In these cases, going along with the untruth, ignoring it or laughing it off are your best bets. In the case of the cookie eater, a smile or laugh (to assure the child you aren’t mad) and some evidence-gathering might be enough to gently coax them to a confession. “Not you, huh? That’s so weird because I see crumbs on your little face and chocolate all over your hands…” Just don’t overreact. If you feel you must call it out, maybe call it a “joke” or a “trick.” But don’t call it a “lie” — because it’s not.

The Accidental Untruth (Level 1)

The Empty Pot

Also called the “Lazy Untruth,” these can occur at any age (and well into adulthood.) These are untruths that may very well sound intentional, but are honest mistakes. Let’s face it: Kids forget stuff. Or they’re genuinely mistaken. They misread a situation. They get confused about the facts. Their interpretation is different than ours. Similarly, children with an impulsive type of ADHD are known for speaking quickly, and sometimes the first thing that flies out of their mouths is something entirely untrue.

  • Child says: “I forgot to do my homework.”

  • Child says: “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to take out the garbage.”

  • Child says: “I never said that!”

What to do:

Just talk through the issue; clear up any confusion, and move on. Maybe implement some memory aids to help out for next time — checklists, time limits and organizers. If you are confused about whether you are dealing with an accidental truth or an intentional truth, go with the former. When you assume the best of your child, they’ll step into that role. When you accuse them of lying, they might just step into that role, too.

When you assume the best of your child, they’ll step into that role. When you accuse them of lying, they might just step into that role, too.

The Lie by Example (Level 2)

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Let’s face it, we teach our kids to lie. Every time we exaggerate or bend the truth as a shortcut to getting what we want. Every time we spill a secret and ask our kids to keep it to themselves. It doesn’t matter how sly we think we are, or how righteous we feel, lying in front of kids sends the message that some lying is okay and may even be beneficial. Now, I’m not putting a moral judgment on this; whether and why we lie — Santa myth, anyone? — is completely up to us. But let's own it.

  • You ask your child to keep a birthday party a surprise.

  • You issue a fake compliment to someone.

  • You exaggerate a headache to get out of going to an event.

What to do:

If you think a child is lying, or may start lying, in imitation of you, be as clear as possible about where you are drawing your lines, and why. But also be sure your child knows they never need to lie to you. "You can tell me anything, anytime," you might say, "even if you think it might be bad or it might hurt my feelings." When you do lie, explain your thinking out loud. “I do not want to go to this event, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I’m going to use my headache as an excuse.” Or: “Telling the truth is really important to me, and I don't ever like to lie, but in some cases — like this one — I think telling my cousin I didn’t like the gift she gave me would just be hurtful.” Or: “We’re having a surprise party for Daddy, which means I have to lie to him about our plans. But in this case, I think it’s okay because Daddy loves surprise parties, and this one is going to make him so happy! He will thank us for keeping it a secret.”

The Tall-Tale Lie (Level 2)

Pig the Fibber

The Tall-Tale Lie is a grandiose lie told to boost one’s self-esteem. This type makes the child seem more impressive, special or talented than they are. When I was 4, I told my best friend, Malak, that my dad had trophies in the basement for eating like a pig. My dad was an attorney with impeccable manners. The pig thing was so far from the truth it was instantly hilarious and, for decades, I didn’t understand why I would even say such a thing. I was well into my 20s when my mom filled me in: Malak’s family was Egyptian, and Malak had been complaining to me that her dad ate lots of foods with his hands. My comment about my dad’s pig trophies had been an attempt to one-up her — or maybe to make her feel better, who can tell? The point is that, although Tall-Tale lies can seem (and often are!) completely benign, they require a closer look.

  • Child tells parents: “I scored seven touchdowns in recess today!”

  • Child tells friends: “I went to Paris this summer and worked as a model!”

  • Child tells a sibling: “I have way more friends than you do.”

What to do:

Know, first of all, that the child’s lack of self-confidence is the real issue here, not the lying. So try not to make a big deal out of it, or call it out. That just shames the child at a time when they're obviously already feeling bad about themselves. If you want to acknowledge the lie, you can say, “That sounds like a tall tale!” or "That's awfully hard to believe!" or something like that. But then let it go. Focus on you child's self-esteem, and the lying will naturally fade away. (If you’re unsure what causes low self-esteem, or what to do about it, read this and then this.)

The Lie to Sidestep Trouble (Level 3)

A Children's Book About Lying

Alright, it's time to break out the big guns. The Lie to Sidestep Trouble is the most widespread and problematic of all lies, and it occurs in humans of all ages. These are lies kids tell to keep from incurring negative consequences — whether it be a lecture, a timeout, lost privileges, extra chores, grounding, shame, guilt, a dirty look — or any of the hundreds of other negative ways we find to dissuade children for wrongdoing.

  • Child says: "She hit me first!"

  • Child says: "I didn't go over my screen time limit today."

  • Teenager says: "It wasn't a drinking party."

  • Teenager says: "I'm not even interested in sex yet."

What to do:

First things first: Do not punish your children when they tell you the truth. Yes, this may be damn hard — especially when they have broken a well-known limit and put themselves at risk in the process. But punishing doesn't make children tell the truth; it makes them better liars. Instead, establish a poker face, and perfect it. When your child tells you the truth — regardless of how hard it is to hear — nod and say, "Thank you for telling me the truth. I can't tell you how much that means to me." The second thing is just a truncated version of the first: Do not punish your children, period. Honestly, folks, if you are using punishments (or threats or intimidation or yelling or any other thing your child finds highly unpleasant), you are raising your kids to lie. That's because lying is a perfectly normal "fight or flight" response that is triggered when people are under stress, and punishment in any form causes kids incredible stress. Furthermore, punishment is both outdated and completely unnecessary. (If you don't believe me, read ParentShift, or better yet, dive into the research yourself. It's well documented that punishments, and even logical consequences, corrode parent-child relationships and sacrifice confidence and accountability at the altar of "good" behavior. There are plenty of other tools in your parenting toolbox; use them.) Lastly, keep your eye on the prize: your kid's safety. Consider establishing an understanding the way my husband did for our daughter before she even entered middle school: "If you're ever in a place that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, you can always call me and I will come and get you, at any time, no questions asked. You will never be in trouble for needing help — even if you got yourself into the situation, even if you are doing something you know I won't like."

The Lie to Spare Your Feelings: (Level 3)

This is Not My Hat

Eliminating punishments from our parenting toolbox will not automatically eliminate lying. This is because children also lie when they believe the truth is too much for us parents to handle. This is the trouble with "woe is me" manipulation tactics, with making kids feel that they are the cause of our emotions, or with generally being an overprotective worrywart. When kids believe we're fragile snowflakes who worry all the time and will fall to pieces if we know what they really feel and think and do, they will do what they can to keep us from finding out. They’ll lie to protect us.

  • Child doesn't tell you about drugs being passed in the hallway at school.

  • Child doesn't tell you when he's being bullied.

  • Teenager says: "I drove the speed limit the whole time."

  • Teenager says: "It's fine. I'm fine."

What to do:

Man up! Put your Big Girl Pants on! (Why are all these sexist terms jumping into my head?!). How about this: Be the adult. When your kid is in a "mood," or testing the limits, take deep breaths and stay calm. Let them see that you can handle big emotions; you can handle unpleasant situations; you can handle whatever the fuck they throw at you! Seriously, if you flip your lid and become "worried sick" when your kid seems to be struggling with some sadness, don't be surprised when they later lie to you about feeling depressed or anxious or lonely. You might seriously wonder why your baby doesn’t feel safe telling you the truth. But it's like that line from A Few Good Men: “YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH.” That's what they think anyway. But here's the real truth: You can totally handle it. When it comes to your kid, there is nothing you can't handle. The trick is to make sure your kid knows it.

The ‘It’s None of Your Goddamn Business’ Lie (Level 1)

I Want My Hat Back

If my daughter knocks on my locked bedroom door late at night and then asks me later why the door was locked, I’m very likely to lie and say I accidentally locked it. I'm telling this lie for privacy reasons. (And frankly, we’ve been down this road before, and Maxine does NOT want to know the when and where of her parents’ sex life.) By the same token, as kids get older and realize their own need for privacy, we must expect them to fudge the truth from time to time on their end to protect their privacy.

  • You ask what the child is doing in the bathroom, and the child says "Nothing."

  • Child denies writing about you in their diary.

  • Teenager does not reveal all the details of their date when asked.

What to do:

Back off. Respect your child's boundaries. Just as you don't read your kid's super-secret diary, don't push them to reveal private things about themselves, or their friends, either. Honesty is important, but you are not “entitled” to know everything they know. And you won't.

My daughter and I have a pretty typical mother-daughter relationship in that the sound of my voice when it's asking her to do something irritates her on a deep level, and the way she talks to me sometimes (like I'm an idiot) makes me want to walk into traffic. But the trust that exists between us is pretty extraordinary. We speak openly and truthfully to each other. She feels comfortable coming to me and her dad with problems, and I know all her struggles (and most of her friends’ struggles, too).

I could, I suppose, credit my parenting style for this. It's certainly the reason we don't use punishments and rewards. But if I'm being honest, it goes back a lot further than that. At least 40 years further. To that moment — and all the moments since — when mom heard my truth and, instead of scolding me for being human, gently led me back to the scene of my undoing and helped me make things right again.

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